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This Land is My Land, This Land is Your Land...

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Did you know that there is one African colonial state that has yet to declare its independence? One small region that still does not live independently? Who knew? Not many people, and this is one of the gravest problems facing the Saharawi people and their homeland of Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara, as it was named in 1975 by the United Nations, is a tiny region in Northwest Africa bordered by Morocco to the North, Mauritania to the South and Algeria to the East.
Vocabulary Box

Phosphate - A salt derived from an acid commonly used in carbonated drinks.

Scorch - To burn something slightly to change its color, taste, etc.

Civilian - A person engaged in civil pursuits, distinguished from military sources

Asylum - A safe place

Exile - To be separated from one's own country

It extends over 285,000 square kilometers and is made up of predominantly sandy plains. Living in the Western Sahara is no piece of cake! You have to contend with difficult environmental conditions, cold winters, scorching summers, and low, irregular rainfall. So, why would anyone be fighting over this place? The main reason is that in the 1950's the Saharawi stumbled upon one of the biggest high-grade phosphate deposits in the world. This deposit is estimated to contain more than 10 million tons of phosphate and is estimated to be 70 to 80% pure.

Before they "struck gold", the Saharawi people had been living for centuries in the harsh conditions of Western Sahara. They are a mixture of the Berber and Arabic tribespeople. Their ancestors can be traced back to the 15th century when tribes from the Yemen crossed North Africa establishing themselves in the Western Sahara region. The Berbers and Arabic tribespeople learned to help each other survive the extreme living conditions of the Western Sahara. That is how the two tribes eventually became one! The struggles of the 20th century against Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania have brought about a strong Saharawi nationalism.

So, just what is the struggle? The fight is for independence, which amounts to a face off between The Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), which is fighting for Saharawi independence, and the Moroccan Government,
Click image for
larger view
Polisario freedom fighters
which wants to keep Western Sahara for itself. How did these two end up "in the ring?" The Polisario have been fighting for independence since 1973. The Western Sahara was a Spanish colony for over one century. The Polisario was initially founded to harass the Spaniards and run them out of the area. This battle was won! Spain pulled out of the area in 1974. Now, one might think with Spain out of the way the Saharawi people could live happily ever after. Not quite so. Once Morocco and Mauritania got word of the Spanish retreat from the region, they did what any right-mined political power would do…they invaded the region! Mauritania soon backed out of the deal leaving their claim to Morocco, and Morocco marched on with the invasion. In November of 1975, King Hassan II led 350,000 unarmed Moroccan civilians on the "Green March" into the Western Sahara to stake their claim on the region. They were met with resistance. The Polisario did not take well to Moroccan intervention. They embarked on a long guerilla war against their new "landlords."

Who won this battle? In 1991, after 24 years of war, the Security Council adopted the United Nations Peace Plan for Western Sahara. The United Nations mission for the referendum in Western Sahara, MINUERSO(Misión de las Naciones Unidas para el Referendum del Sahara Occidental), has been monitoring a cease-fire since September 6, 1991, and preparing a self-determination referendum. The cease-fire has held up, but the arrangement is far from perfect. There are many reports of human rights abuses against members of the Polisario.

Where have the Saharawi gone?

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One of the refugee camps in Algeria
Facing Moroccan aggression, the Saharawis fled east to Algeria. They were granted asylum and began to build refugee camps in an area of the desert, which was previously considered uninhabitable. The task of creating a new life in exile fell to the women. Saharawi women have played an essential role in running the camps from the beginning. They have developed health care systems, education, day care, and social affairs, and they play an active role in the political process. The refugee camps are home to over 200,000 Saharawi, and all of them are awaiting the day they can return home to the Western Sahara.

Saharwi woman
So, what will it take to get these people back home? The cease-fire is in place but the referendum has yet to materialize. It is scheduled to take place in December of 1999. It has taken nearly nine years to reach a vote due to disagreements over who is allowed to vote. The Polisario want to exclude anyone from the vote that could grant them their long awaited independence! They claim that Morocco has been moving people into the region in order to boost votes for inclusion of Western Sahara into the Kingdom of Morocco. Morocco has invested all kinds of money and resources into building a "livable" area for its people in the Western Sahara. The government lures people to the region with employment incentives and tax-free living, all for a vote. Does this seem fair to you?

The less we hear about the Saharawi situation, the more we should be concerned. With conflicts erupting elsewhere, the UN's focus is not on the Western Sahara, which allows Morocco to influence the region even more. If we let UN's focus slip away, the battle could be lost forever.

So, make your voice heard!


Here are some great sites you can check out to learn more about the plight of the Saharawi people:

CIA World Fact Book

Western Sahara Land and People

Western Sahara Website with great links and up-to-date information, available in English, French, and Spanish

Monica - Recipe for Morocco
Team - Holy Flying Cow Carpets, Batman!
Team - Journey through Time…the Path of the Moroccan Berbers

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